Back from the beach: My reading list

I did a lot of reading on vacation, some of it "professional" and some of it purely for pleasure.   Here's what I read and some of what I learned from them.

My first selection was Stephen Kinzer's new book Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future (Times Books/Henry Holt, 2010). Kinzer is a veteran foreign correspondent with a string of excellent books to his credit, and his latest is a timely argument for a fundamentally different orientation towards these two countries. Kinzer points out the democratic aspirations have deeper roots in both Turkey and Iran than in some of America's other Middle East allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia), and that America's long-term interests would be powerfully advanced by more positive relations with both powers. In particular, he makes a good case for deepening ties with Turkey and doing much more to re-engage Iran than the half-hearted (and possibly insincere) steps that the Obama administration has been willing to try. He also argues that the United States should distance itself somewhat from its current "special relationships" with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which he regards as outmoded vestiges of the Cold War, and have more normal relations with them instead.

Overall, Kinzer provides a nice corrective to the growing (and predictable) campaign to demonize Turkey, as well as the well-funded neoconservative chorus pounding the drums for war with Iran. Readers familiar with Turkish and Iranian history may not learn all that much that is new, but the current state of U.S. discourse on both subjects suggests that there are plenty of people in Washington who could learn from this book.

I followed that up with Ussama Makdisi's Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001 (Public Affairs, 2010). Makdisi is a distinguished historian at Rice University, who's written a fascinating and spirited account of the tragic deterioration in U.S. relations with most of the Arab and Islamic world. He chronicles the early U.S. engagement with the region -- mostly in the form of missionary and educational work -- and he shows that despite some occasional mis-steps, the United States was very well-regarded in the region at the end of World War II. U.S. ideals and achievements were widely admired, and its lack of an imperial past had created a large reservoir of good will.

Since then, of course, it's been pretty much all downhill. U.S. leaders rarely understood local dynamics in the Arab world and saw most events through crude Cold War lenses. Growing and increasingly unconditional support for Israel angered many Arabs, especially when indifference to the Palestinians' fate seemed so at odds with America's professed values.  Uncritical support for various Arab autocracies didn't help either, and the invasion of Iraq merely confirmed an anti-American narrative that had emerged over several decades. Despite a hopeful beginning, Barack Obama hasn't turned things around, and may even have made things worse in the region.

Makdisi is an American citizen who spent part of his childhood in Lebanon, before doing his undergraduate work Wesleyan and receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton. He clearly sees the erosion on U.S.-Arab ties as a tragedy that could have been avoided, and a certain righteous anger sometimes intrudes into his prose. But he doesn't whitewash Arab mistakes or malfeasance either, even while attempting to put their behavior in a proper context and helping Western readers understand how the world has looked to them. If you're still curious about "why they hate us?" this book is a good place to start.

I followed that up with William Pfaff's slim new volume The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy. Pfaff's book is a sweeping but well-informed indictment of the hubris that has suffused U.S. foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson.  Instead of seeking to make our republic secure and prosperous at home, and to defend the core liberties with which the United States was founded, U.S. statesmen (and women) have instead succumbed to the belief that security at home necessarily depends on transforming the rest of the world in our image. Pfaff argues that this is simply the American version of the same post-Enlightenment impulse that drove the French revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, and other apostles of global revolution; the urge to make "heaven on earth" in the here-and-now, instead of waiting for a heaven to come in the hereafter. 

Along the way, Pfaff has many wise things to say about the folly of the war in Iraq and the futility of our current efforts in Afghanistan, and he debunks a lot of the paranoid claptrap that has informed national security debates in the world's most powerful country. He provides a useful sketch of what a "non-interventionist" foreign policy would be; instead of trying to save the world, its primary responsibility would be "the well-being and quality of American life." What a radical notion (!), that we in America should worry first and foremost about the well-being of our fellow citizens, instead of engaging in ill-conceived crusades in countries we do not understand and where we are as likely to make things worse as to make things better.

One need not share all of his judgments to find this a sobering reflection on how we got to where we now are, and the difficulty we will have extricating ourselves from the current interventionist mindset. And I kept wondering why there is nobody remotely like Pfaff writing a regular column for a major mainstream publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal. We've got plenty of neocons and enthusiastic liberal internationalists, but why not at least one sober-minded realist? What are op-ed page editors and publishers so afraid of?

By the way, one theme emphasized in all three books is the importance of history. Virtually all policy problems have origins in the past--  and sometimes the deep past -- and how we think about past events often has a profound impact on how we judge the rightness or wrongness of different policy positions today. Pfaff notes that his "non-interventionist" foreign policy would rely heavily on "diplomacy and analytical intelligence, with particular attention to history, since nearly all serious problems among nations are recurrent or have important recurring elements in them." Amen to that.

Of course, vacation isn't just about work, so I read a few novels too. In addition to my usual beach diet of Rex Stout, Carl Hiassen, and Dorothy Sayers, I also inhaled Alan Furst's new Spies of the Balkans (Random House, 2010) and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. Spies of the Balkans tells the story of a Greek police officer who gets involved in espionage in the months prior to the Germany invasion of Greece, playing a key role in facilitating the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany. I've been addicted to Furst ever since The Polish Officer, and while his formula has started to wear a bit thin, his ability to sketch a noir-ish scene remains wonderful and the sense of foreboding that suffuses his work is often gripping. No problem turning the pages, in short. Plus, his portrayal of an ambitious Gestapo officer with no ideological convictions but all-too-much ambition is right out of Hannah Arendt and Christopher Browning, and all the more chilling for that. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad is more of a literary romp, a touching, painful, at times funny, and beautifully written series of vignettes grounded (but not confined) to the punk rock scene in San Francisco and New York. It follows the interconnected lives of a group of musicians and record producers, their partners, children, employees, former friends, and sundry acquaintances, ranging over several continents and decades. I'd not read Egan before, and she has both an uncommon flair with language and an uncanny knack for giving her characters unique voices and world-views. If I could write like that ... well, I wouldn't be writing this.



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